Doing Well by Doing Good: How Sarah Friar is leading the world of FinTech and bringing more women along for the ride

09/08/2017 01:16 pm ET

If I had to write Sarah Friar’s micro-bio, I’d leave it at this: She is one of the most powerful women in the technology industry. Sarah is the CFO and Operations Lead at Square, where she helps small businesses overcome what used to be a hurdle: taking payments. She also serves as one of Slack’s first independent board members and this doesn’t even begin to cover the years she spent leading finance operations at Goldman Sachs and Salesforce.

But what I love about Sarah can’t be pinpointed on her résumé. Sarah is a champion for women pursuing STEM-related careers. She has spent years in a male-dominated industry and come out on top. She is also leveraging her position in tech to empower the next generation of leadership with the same skills that have made her an ace. Anyone that says we’re lacking in female business role models need look no further!

“For me, it’s about putting people first, which is not only a leadership approach for me, but it also just makes me really happy.”

© Square

Sarah, fifty percent of small businesses using Square are led or founded by women. In some way, Square has nurtured the success of women business owners simply by eliminating a previously cumbersome payment process. What other simple processes are untapped in your eyes that could change how female entrepreneurs work?

I’ve spent my entire career in industries that are traditionally male-dominated, from finance to tech, so I’m especially proud of the fact that Square fosters the success of women business owners. Beyond enabling the acceptance of card payments, which is huge, access to capital is another place where we can really dig in and provide even more support for women entrepreneurs.

Access to capital is a huge roadblock for many small business owners, regardless of gender. We’ve already expanded this in two ways that make a huge impact for our sellers. First, Square offers next-day deposit for all sellers. And for a 1% fee, sellers have the option to deposit their daily sales in their bank account the very same day, seven days a week. This means sellers get their money when they need it, which can be critical for a small business. Second, with Square Capital, we’ve brought simplicity, transparency, and flexibility to the process of receiving a business loan. With the number of women-owned businesses continuing to rise, expanding access to the tools they need to run their businesses is essential. I feel lucky to be at Square where championing female entrepreneurs is--and always has been--ingrained into the DNA of the entire company.

You have nearly two decades of experience in STEM-related industries. What were some of the challenges you faced in your career path as a woman in a male-dominated work environment? Although the industry is becoming more inclusive, what challenges still remain?

Unfortunately there are massive systemic biases in every industry. There’s a lot of work to do, and as a society we really have to commit to doing the hard work to change it. And there is so much change that needs to happen. For example, only 6% of the S&P 500 companies have a female CEO. In my first internship, there was a lot of asks for me to do things like make tea, literally, and not a lot of asks for my thoughts on the business. I was too embarrassed to speak up—and that was a miss.

“18% of computer science majors are women, so the pipeline argument simply does not hold water. And if you do think there’s a pipeline issue, then you need to fix that pipeline.”

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At Square, we’ve invested in initiatives like teaching unconscious bias training to everyone. This allows us to start with awareness and think about where might we be making assumptions, using language, and allowing preconceptions that cloud our views on someone’s abilities and output. I also think it’s important to set clear goals on a periodic basis. This allows us to objectively measure outcomes, while allowing flexibility so people can be creative in how they achieve those goals.

Code Camp, a tech immersion program led by Square, encourages women to pursue careers in computer science. Has it been successful? What is your response to those who argue women just aren’t interested in the field?

We’re really proud of Code Camp, which is now in its 8th iteration. We launched it five years ago in San Francisco, then took it to New York, and this year it’s in Atlanta for the first time. So it’s certainly successful and growing.

I think the most successful part of it is the network that these women become a part of and continue to cultivate long after the camp itself. We hear year after year from attendees that the Code Camp community is truly life-changing. Campers stay in touch for years, developing strong peer-mentor relationships, visiting each other across the country, and of course, on a professional level, tapping into each other’s networks for internships, jobs, career advice, and more.

For those who say women aren’t interested in the field, that’s ridiculous. 18% of computer science majors are women, so the pipeline argument simply does not hold water. And if you do think there’s a pipeline issue, then you need to fix that pipeline. We have to work on making the field more accessible and supportive for women who are passionate about it. And that’s precisely what we’re working on with programs like Code Camp.

Square has taken major strides to promote a diverse and inclusive workplace. In fact, it’s reported that 60% of Square employees report to women. Was this a transition or a gradual growth in this direction? What has been the response among male employees?

What’s unusual and great about Square is that this was a natural and organic progress. 45% of our executives are women. That didn’t happen as a result of a major initiative or push to install women in leadership positions—it’s just been that way for a long time.

“We take time to talk about issues and where we still have a lot of work to do. Sometimes it’s quite painful, but that’s part of the process and how you begin meaningful change.”

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We believe strongly that tone is set at the top. We care deeply about diversity and inclusion at Square. For that to ring through authentically, you need genuine buy-in at the executive level. We’re fortunate to have an executive team that places a high priority on culture. A lot of that is a reflection of Jack [Dorsey] and his abilities to prioritize and instill a strong sense of culture, as well as recruit and build great teams.

As far as employee response, we actually measure employee satisfaction and sense of belonging each quarter, and share those results with the entire company. Importantly, we take time to talk about issues and where we still have a lot of work to do. Sometimes it’s quite painful, but that’s part of the process and how you begin meaningful change.

You are a board member of Spark- a nonprofit organization preparing underserved students for promising careers through mentorship. How can we empower more students to tackle their dream careers early on when social media and adolescent concerns create so many distractions?

Spark specifically works with middle school students because broadly, this age group is particularly susceptible to the type of distraction and disengagement you mention. It's a critical developmental period for all kids no matter their background or neighborhood. It's also a time when we as caring adults - parents, mentors, educators - have an opportunity to get these young people excited about their futures! Spark believes that if we can help students to connect their interests and skills with what's possible for their future, we can give them the tools they need to identify and stay on a successful path that can lead all the way to a career. One of my favorite parts of Spark is that the students get to work with real people, in real workplaces, doing real jobs. Kids, who are so impressionable (I know because I have one!), really need this, especially in a world where they can go an entire day without an in-person conversation with an adult.

What is one opportunity you have created for a Square client/employee or Spark beneficiary that you like to think back on?

One thing that stands out for me with Spark is that when we treat students like equals, we build both a quicker and stronger connection with them. A few weeks ago, Jack [Dorsey] spoke to some Spark Students and Mentors at an event where they presented projects they created together. Jack treated the audience of students like equals. Earlier that day, at a separate event with investors and financial analysts - all adults - Jack was asked how he manages being CEO of two different companies. Later in the day, that was the first question he was asked at the Spark event by a room of middle school students! And he gave the same answer—which was a pretty sophisticated answer—about having a framework, and consistency of approach, and so forth. It wasn’t a filtered or adjusted answer, and you could tell the students really took it in and absorbed it. That’s also what Spark is about: treating young people as equals by helping them understand and experience the options, and letting them determine the direction.

One of your internships in college was on a gold mine in Africa! What led you there and what was your experience like? Is there a key lesson that you took with you?

As you can imagine, it was an incredibly unique experience, and had both positives and negatives. One of the lessons that stood out was being able to witness first hand the practical application of science. I was able to see in real life things that you typically only think of in a theoretical manner. It brought all of these concepts alive, which was really inspiring. There were also challenges, of course: I was a young woman living in a mine by myself! So it was a time in life when I realized I had to be super resilient in every aspect. From the minor things like learning to live by myself with a strange African parrot for company, to the major things like figuring out where I would take my career from there because it wasn’t obvious what I should do next.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned as a corporate executive?

How important it is for me to lead and not just manage. And this is not to undersell management. Great management is critical, and as companies grow, the complexity of management grows exponentially. And it becomes even more important to effectively manage resources, plan, problem-solve, put people in a position to grow...the list goes on.

“There’s a lot of work to do, and as a society we really have to commit to doing the hard work to change it. And there is so much change that needs to happen.”

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Leadership, on the other hand, is about vision. You have to accurately identify the long term themes occurring in an industry, motivate people to take risks to capitalize on those themes - sometimes at the expense of what you do today - and then thrive within those changes. I talk to my team all the time about winning over hearts - that’s when people will follow you into any battle.

Finally, do you think that by doing good, you’re more successful?

No question. I think there’s a really great circle that’s created when you place your focus on doing good. And doing good takes on different forms for different people. For me, it’s about putting people first, which is not only a leadership approach for me, but it also just makes me really happy. And I think of happiness as kind of a well of energy that I can draw from, which in turn helps me be resilient when times are tough and, ultimately, helps me be successful.

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